When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week denied the Pebble Limited Partnership a federal permit to develop a mine under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, it surprised people on both sides of the issue.
“I was ecstatic. I was elated. I was so happy to hear that it was finally over,” said Billy Trefon, Jr. from Nondalton, one of the villages closest to where the mine would have been built.
To the south, in Iliamna, Iliamna Development Corporation CEO Lisa Reimers said people feel hopeless.
“Well, we feel like it was — we were lied to by the Army Corps because they said politics wouldn’t be involved. And it ended up being politics,” she said. “The Army stated they’d recommend to build a mine, then out of nowhere they changed their minds.”
Pebble would have been one of the largest gold mines in the world. The Army Corps said last week that the mine proposal didn’t follow Clean Water Act guidelines.
For Trefon, in Nondalton, the project also went against the traditional teachings of elders.
“I was raised up listening to elders telling me that, if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you,” he said. “And it has been doing that for centuries, milleniums. So to us this land is important. The water is important.”
People around Bristol Bay, including Trefon, have focused on Pebble to the point of exhaustion, investing years to understand the issues around the project and its potential impacts.
Many were resigned, and for opponents of the project, the Army Corps’ decision released a wave of relief. Lindsay Layland is the deputy director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay, one of the regional groups opposing the mine. She’s also a commercial fisherman.
“As a fisherman, I’m just… I’m so happy, you know, I’m so proud of the effort that folks in the bay and beyond have put forward, and come together on,” she said.
Opposition to Pebble has been a unifying issue for the three major sectors of Bristol Bay’s fishery. Much of the advocacy over the past decade and a half has been centered on protecting Bristol Bay’s sockeye salmon run — the largest wild salmon run in the world.
“It really comes down to this amazing coalition, this amazing, diverse group of people — from commercial fishermen, to tribes, to sport fishermen, to subsistence fishermen, to hunters and anglers,” Layland said.
The debate has influenced people of all ages. Hailey Carty is a 13-year-old from Dillingham who’s in eighth grade. Pebble has always been a topic close to home.
“This has been something I’ve been protesting against for a few years now, and for it to finally be denied is really, really exciting,” she said.
Many of the people who live in the region and opposed the project also see this as a win in a fight to prioritize and protect subsistence practices.
“This is our land, our food sources, our animals, everything kind of runs off the water,” Carty said. “And for something to be taken away, can affect so many different things. It can just destroy many, many things.”
But for those who backed the project, the decision comes as a harsh blow. The mine proposal had recently seemed poised to succeed.
Sue Anelon works for the Iliamna Development Corporation. Iliamna is another community close to where the mine would have been. Anelon says the area is economically depressed. She sees the Army Corps’ denial as a bad decision for the state as well as the Lake Iliamna region.
“I’m very worried right now, because there’s a lot of people without jobs — they’re depending on the government,” she said.
Anelon said people have to wake up to the economic reality in the state. She pointed out that when Pebble was operating in the area several years ago, it provided jobs. That meant they were able to more fully participate in a cash economy.
“I’ve seen the good and the bad,” she said. “When Pebble was here and a lot of people were working, they were paying for their own groceries, they were paying their own fuel. They were buying trucks, they were buying Hondas. People were paying for things. Now they can’t do that. They have to rely on the government.”
Reimers, the CEO of Iliamna Development Corporation and a board member for Iliamna Natives Limited, has supported the project for years. She disagrees with the Army Corps determination that it was “contrary to the public interest.”
Reimers believes that regional entities like the Bristol Bay Native Corporation have not provided viable economic opportunities for communities like Iliamna, and she said that people who live near the proposed mine site and wanted the project are deeply disappointed.
The Pebble partnership said in a statement that the Army Corps’ decision is a “lost opportunity” for the region, and that it plans to appeal the denial.